A Revolution On A Break
23. September 2011
Is the biggest social protest in Israel’s history coming to an end?
By Naomi Darom*
The tent site on Tel Aviv’s Rotschild Avenue – once a symbol of the imminent revolution and the best social scene in town – is now only a shadow of its former self. Of the 1,000-odd tents that lined the avenue only a month ago, only about a 100 remain: they house an odd mix of activists and the homeless, for whom the call for affordable housing is a matter not of principle but of survival.
The bustling kitchen tent, where meals were made for hundreds of tent dwellers, has been supplanted by a makeshift table full of dirty bowls. Activists and students still come here to hang out at night. But during the day, only a handful of unemployed site residents sit on the worn out couches at the avenue’s center, smoking and talking to passerby, and discussing, with the few activists present, the future of the revolution.
First there was Daphne
Is the protest over, or just on a break? That remains to be seen. It has certainly come a long way since July 14th, when a 25-year old woman named Daphne Leef, recently evicted from her Tel Aviv apartment, declared on Facebook that she is going to move into a tent on the avenue to protest rising housing costs. Other tents quickly mushroomed, in Tel Aviv and other cities, and a protest was born; the media caught on, closely followed by politicians, who were sometimes booed away from the site. Leef became a national figure, hailed and criticized in equal measures.
The demands of the protesters – headed by Leef, Stav Shafrir, Regev Contes and student leader Itzik Shmuli – multiplied almost daily: to the call for affordable housing – from 2007 to 2011, housing prices here have risen by 60% – were added demands for a more competitive market, which should lower prices of food, gas, real estate and even cement in markets controlled by a handful of monopoles and oligopolies. Free education from the age of 3 months, a reform in the public health system, tax reform, better enforcement of labor laws, minimizing the widening gaps between rich and poor – all came under the call, “The People Demand Social Justice”.
Prime minister Bibi Netanyahu never met with the protesters, and treated them with suspicion: the call for greater government involvement cut against his devotion to privatization and the free market. But as the cause mobilized more and more Israelis, he appointed “The Trajtenberg Committee for Socioeconomic Change”, led by Manuel Trajtenberg, an economics professor sympathetic to the protest.
The protesters responded by declaring that the committee was a decoy, and appointing a counter-committee of experts. The Trajtenberg committee published its report on Monday, September 26th – and among its recommendations: public education from age 3, instead of 5; better implementation of labor laws, a housing reform and anti-trust regulation. Estimated cost: 30 billion NIS. And where is the money to come from? A deep cut in the defense budget, and raised taxes on the rich and on corporations. “Israel’s social security is as important as its physical security,” Trajtenberg reportedly said – a deviation from Israeli governments’ usual love of new tanks and planes. (See also commentary on the left.)
The peak of the social protest came on September 3rd, when 450,000 people – almost 7% of Israel’s population – took to the streets in the biggest demonstration in the country’s history. The sight of so many people shouting in unison, mobilized for a common cause – so rare in a fractured society – was exhilarating: but it also marked the beginning of the end.
United for the first time
September brought on the school year and the scheduled declaration of a Palestinian state, and as usual in Israel, the social was pushed aside in favor of the political. But not all is the same: for the first time in Israel’s history, the public conversation has changed – from a talk of security and borders, to a talk of the everyday. For the first time, Israelis from all walks of life united in a call for a better future: and they made the political system, so long attuned to the interests of a handful of tycoons and pressure groups, listen. If they can only memorize that lesson, then the summer of 2011 will truly be remembered as the dawn of a revolution.
*Naomi Darom works as a freelance design writer at Haaretz Newspaper in Tel Aviv.